(By Wesley Gibbings)
I warn you that the issue I have been asked to address is very complex and goes beyond the mere institutional, commercial and regulatory challenges of the current condition of mass media in the Caribbean. Had I been minded to approach the topic purely from the perspective of regulations, together with the administrative and commercial imperatives, this discussion would have come to a rather speedy end, because much is already known about how we need to proceed from here.
But, as the late Trinidadian public intellectual, Lloyd Best, might have quipped: This is a matter of algebra and not simple arithmetic.
Let’s begin with a quick introduction to some of what I consider to be the main issues. The first would address the question of what are Caribbean media for. This considers matters in excess of the fact that mass media are acknowledged to be potentially lucrative commercial undertakings – if not as stand-alone enterprises, certainly as facilitative components of bigger conglomerate concerns.
For the most part, though, in our region, media enterprises subsist as single-entity investments. Apart from the receding role of monopolistic state broadcast media, there are few instances – however spectacular – in which concentration of ownership can be remotely considered to be an actual threat to the independence of media operations in the sense of skewing public awareness. Even here in Jamaica with the RJR/Gleaner merger, there is no supportable evidence to suggest that the country will suddenly find itself entirely at the mercy of an entity committed to a narrow interest or agenda that is overwhelmingly foisted on an unsuspecting public.
In fact, I would argue that the true hegemony over ideas in the Caribbean can be found in some traditional customs and beliefs, the machinations of validating social elites and the forceful influence of organised religion. They all find legitimacy in a homogeneity of values and practices, as opposed to diversity and pluralism. All seek monopoly status. They thrive on a lack of diversity. The real challenge involves our liberation from these strangleholds. But that’s another discussion for another time.
It is important that commercial and economic relations ought not to be distorted by inequitable arrangements regarding the allocation of broadcasting spectrum or, particularly in small markets, too many diamonds in a single basket. Our region needs to get more serious about anti-trust legislation which defies traditional uncompetitive commercial relations in our small countries while not stifling enterprise and meaningful alliances that may emerge.
However much we talk about it in Trinidad and Tobago, there are two major media conglomerates but no real dominance to create conditions for real concern about an absence of diversity or plurality. The open market, facilitated by the advent of more and more online media alternatives, has contributed toward a much more rigorous marketplace of news, information and opinion than ever existed before and my own view is that freedom of expression should prevail on all these fronts.
To me, the essential challenges have to do with a capacity to speak truth not only to those in power, but those who provide the circumstances for the accumulation of power through media capable of capturing it within the framework of a unique Caribbean aesthetic. This does not amount to culturally-specific value systems in the delivery of journalistic services – for such a formulation frequently suggests a level of self-censorship and relativism on questions of human rights and freedoms.
There is also compelling consideration of whether the elusive notion of the public interest is adequately served by what we have. I am inclined to support the general principle that the public interest is not served when the otherwise underrepresented do not acquire a stronger voice or a more attentive audience. It is a shared responsibility involving all axes of public communication.
In declaring a specific freedom relative to the work of the press, we nevertheless need to acknowledge a relationship between the rights and freedoms we insist upon and our responsibilities to the people on the basis of whose interests we have asserted such rights.
There is also a broader, universal context to be explored. The current state of media and their future direction, including what becomes of journalism in the Caribbean, is a subject that goes to the heart of an unfolding global human and technological revolution that has created new frontiers and new contexts in which people the world over are defining and interpreting their existence. What we are witnessing, in my view, is a reformulation not only of the business of communication but a transformation of the process of human communication itself.
At one time we in media marveled at the transition from mass broadcasting to selective narrowcasting, through the introduction of digital technology. Today, what we are witnessing seems to be the emergence of a capacity to occupy a multiplicity of dimensions simultaneously through communication processes that are dramatically challenging prevailing notions of how information flows, relatively unmediated, from person to person and from place to place.
In his path-breaking book Understanding Media – The extensions of man, Canadian philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan, wrote more than 20 years ago that: “After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”
McLuhan essentially diagnosed a condition in which human beings are moving from being mere witnesses to the explosion of technological development and its subsequent implosion, to what I would describe as being resident at the epicenter of its detonation – both the subjects and objects of a process that challenges almost everything we previously held to be true.
The Caribbean experience ought to have equipped us well for all of this. Born out of conquest, settlement, migration and bondage, our raison d’être has long embraced the notion of organic global integration. We have long not only been in the world, but have had the world in us – reared for the production of goods for markets far away but ourselves the subject of a marketplace for people – a process that never really ended as we witness the production not only of good and services for export, but people and the perspectives we bring.
I believe it is important for us to understand some of these things. It is vital to the process of resolving the many different challenges we face as people who have traveled the highway of colonialism and independence and, are now approaching the opportunity to achieve true liberation and a meaningful place in the world.
An enlightened approach to the subject at hand ought also to realistically make an assessment of the pace and direction of the technological developments. There is a view, for example, that the Big Bang of recent years is set for a virtual technological plateau – a period of time during which we will be permitted to catch our collective breaths and, perhaps, to even take a few steps backward.
I was privileged to interview renowned astrophysicist and former NASA director, Dr Charles Pellerin, only a week ago and was advised by him to keep away from the more fanciful projections that portend overly dramatic arrangements for the role of man in his own affairs. Dr Pellerin proposed that it would be wrong to engage in what he termed a “linear extrapolation” of what might occur in the future, based only on where we are today and how we arrived at this point.
In his view, much of the more recent technologies are reaching their respective plateaus and he locates this within the context of the rise and fall of civilisations. I take the liberty of hanging the specter of my own country, Trinidad & Tobago, as an example in the background of Pellerin’s suggested approach to these big questions.
He points to the rise and fall of relatively complex human civilisations over periods of time. In fact, we do not have to go far to find evidence of collapsed civilisations – the pre-Columbian Taino cultures of the Caribbean are one example occasioned by invasion and conquest not unlike the fall of ancient civilisations in Europe, Asia and right next door with the collapse of Aztec and Mayan civilisations.
According to Pellerin, in the modern era, a state of pre-collapse is more readily observed through the deflation that occurs through the expending of excess energy. For example, one can cite the current oil crisis which features not only a precipitous decline in world prices, but easily identifiable excessive consumption leading to the view that with more than a half of non-renewables already gone, a collapse of sorts can be considered to more predictable as something that can occur sooner rather than later.
In that event, the existence of complex societies turns out to be more of an obstacle to coping with the fallout than a benefit. To what extent, we might ask, are the energy-scarce better prepared for disappearing energy resources than the energy-rich countries of the world? For certain, there are more lights to be turned off and more power outlets to be de-activated.
So, let’s not jump too quickly onto the McLuhan wagon while the Pellerin train is in the station. The warning is however heeded that the expectations of the media marketplace need to be tempered by a proper understanding of what is taking place in fields of engagement outside of mass media development and change. And it is not simply a matter of the technology.
There is a developing orthodoxy that dictates the paramountcy of technology when at the true centre of it all are human beings and how they respond to a Maslovian hierarchy not only of needs but of assets and means. In time, this view suggests, the architecture deemed necessary to move from the satisfaction of biological needs to self-actualisation acquires a life and a dynamic of its own, contributing to a situation in which means become more important than the ends.
Good. Now we have covered the philosophical backdrop – to some extent, because the academics are going to ensure they complicate the issue even more when I’m through.
How do we apply these areas of understanding to media industry decisions and our responses to change? I would contend that the discussion on the relationship between man and technology ought to recognise the real possibility that in the media industry, human intervention, while capable of being whittled down to a minimum, is highly unlikely to disappear.
It is true that media industry people are concerned that the ascendancy of platforms created by Google, for instance, has the potential to marginalise the work of journalists by applying algorithms to generate news out of data. It’s being called automated journalism and several reputable news outfits have already begun employing it as substantial parts of their news-mining operations.
This process is cheaper, faster and less prone to some of the elementary errors you see cropping up in news stories in the media we know. But what happens to things such as journalistic values, cultural relevance, nuance and creative story-telling that relates to audiences?
Or is it that the quality of journalism being practised does not at the moment satisfy these requirements of the practice of journalism? Would this not also mean that events for which no structured data are generated will no longer face the possibility of becoming news and in the process marginalise some people and their issues?
Technology can also not be held to be paramount if media content does not meet the requirements of fourth estate status – meaning that media and the journalists that populate them have conscientiously engaged a pact with their audiences that in exchange for this special recognition or status, we undertake to remain committed to an agreed framework we define as the public interest – whether or not it pleases everyone in the end.
Not far from here, not too long ago, I presented the argument that the impetus behind much of media development in the early years relied heavily on technical innovations that had very little or nothing to do with the media industry per se. The advent of steam engines, for example, enabled publishers to produce newspapers more quickly and efficiently. But the development of steam to power engines was not something that initially had anything to do with the work of printing presses, yet it revolutionised the newspaper business.
Likewise, improvements in wireless telephony did not necessarily envisage the advent of instant messaging, tweeting and social media as ways of communicating news, opinions and information to mass audiences. The explosion that occurred in the region with the liberalising of the telecommunications industry also did not initially hint at the vast potential now being displayed.
Nowadays, adjustments are being made because of developments that are uniquely related to new media technologies. Here is some support for this argument.
In Jamaica, with a population of just over two million, fewer than 300,000 subscribers had telephone landlines in 1992. Today, there are over three million handsets in use on the island. At the end of 2013, there were close to 1.6 million internet users and by November 2015, more than a million of them were on Facebook, according to the Internet World Stats website.
If these figures hint at anything it is that the growth in internet access and the use to which it is put has had the effect of liberalising the multi-directional flow of news, information, commentary, analysis and even a great measure of trash.
On the production side, this contrasts sharply with a past in which media practice relied essentially on professional disciplines in three main areas – print, radio and television. Each occupied its own institutional space, for the most part, with little overlapping except perhaps for some content-sharing among broadcasters, particularly in state media.
The current situation has however moved captains of the media industry, particularly in the West, to be concerned that while traditionally, mainstream media have essentially been landlords of the public space they occupy, they are now reduced to tenants’ status as the online media giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google are essentially setting the media agenda by occupying prime online real estate.
Such displacement has however not been universal. A few weeks ago at the World Media Summit in Doha, publisher of The Hindu newspaper of India, Narasimhan Ram, suggested that like the sun, while the newspaper business appeared to be setting in the west, it was very much on the rise in the east. In India, growth in the newspaper business, especially in the regions where regional languages are spoken, is expected to be in the vicinity of 12 and 14% annually in the coming years.
In our part of the world, newspaper circulation is either stagnating or in decline and many broadcasters have not been able to maintain viable revenue bases. Much of this results from broader economic factors that have served to dry up advertising inflows. Online alternatives are increasingly proving to be an important contributor to this phenomenon.
The Gleaner/RJR merger itself does not appear to have been a function of generally poor states of affairs. Media analyst, Dr Marcia Forbes, points to 2014 statistics which show that the RJR-held Television Jamaica commands 72.5% of all free-to-air television viewers, the group’s three cable stations accounting for 28% of the market viewers with the three radio services holding on to a combined listenership of 19.1%.
The statistics for the Jamaica Gleaner are even more impressive with 77.3% of the Sunday readership and clear dominance on all other days of publication.
The two companies have explained that the move had become necessary on account of what they describe as “challenging transitions which in time will see revenues increasingly dominated by digital revenue streams as media platforms converge.”
The assumption therefore is that by combining resources, products and services the companies will be able to achieve a number of important objectives including digital transitioning, establishment of a larger resource base, the combining of unique expertise from each other’s core businesses, joint access to a vast storehouse of content and archives from two companies that include a 180-year-old newspaper and a radio network that was launched over 65 years ago.
Now, going back to the very top of this presentation we need to ask whether this merger – the largest in the history of the Commonwealth Caribbean – is likely to achieve some important objectives, the primary being vigilance over the public interest.
This arises as a concern in the face of the contention that a business agreement which merges the commercial activities of five radio frequencies, one free-to-air television station, three cable television channels, two newspapers and the very popular Go Jamaica online portal can be perceived as representing a case of media concentration with all the accompanying threats to the desired goal of pluralistic media. As I have suggested before, I do not think this will be the case. But there is a debate that can be engaged on this issue.
I would argue that in the current context, there is not likely to be such a threat, given what I have described as the unfolding media landscape region-wide in which traditional, mainstream media are yielding space to new forms of mass communication by a generation of media consumers with no particular allegiance to how things were done in the past.
I however believe that the validating role of traditional media will remain for the time being and that people will continue to respond to the official stamp of the morning newspaper or the evening newscast. It is also my view that the threat of so-called robo-journalism involving technologically ubiquitous methods of acquiring and disseminating news and information, secure from the rigours of professional newsgathering, will not be a pervasive reality in the foreseeable future for reasons outlined earlier.
The current state of economic flux throughout the region can also be expected to affect the financial bottom lines of media enterprises. In Trinidad and Tobago, the country’s main source of foreign income dropped by 70% within the space of a year; despite recent gains in Jamaica there remain areas of concern such as national debt, unemployment and the challenge of economic diversification; some Eastern Caribbean economies can essentially be described as moribund and stress fractures are appearing in Barbados – considered for a long time to be among the more stable well-structured economies of the region.
This does not pronounce favourably on the future prospects for the media industry. In some instances, the survival game is well underway. Newsroom operations are shrinking, budgets are being cut, investments in new technology are being put on hold and the Big Bang of liberalisation in the 1980s and 90s is imploding.
New business alliances, mergers and takeovers are clearly going to be the new norm as the industry considers its several options in the face of threatened collapse in some instances. It might not entirely be that the sun is setting in the West Indies even as it rises in the East but that the orbit is being shaken and the rules of engagement are changing everywhere.
The specter that looms, in my view, promises as much as it challenges us to review the way we interpret our world.
Wesley Gibbings is the President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers. Mr Gibbings delivered this lecture at the Caribbean Institute for Media and Communication (CARIMAC), UWI Public Lecture in Montego Bay, Jamaica on April 12, 2016